Thom Bassett recalls being an absent dad, and how much love and effort it took to find his way back into his daughter’s life.
My daughter Bekah suddenly leans forward, her elbows land on the kitchen counter and her hands cover her red, tear-soaked face. She tries to choke them back, but when her sobs erupt again seconds later, I whip past her and flee up to my bedroom where I explode with angry, accusing words, the flailed reaction to her loud weeping.
There are moments when William Faulkner’s observation that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past” ceases to be a safe literary cliché. As I sit at my desk and listen to Bekah’s slow steps past me to the third floor, I realize we are in the vice grip of that truth: My 24-year-old daughter and I are in this terrible moment because of the badly bent arc of our lives together.
I left Bekah and her mother when she was a little over two years old, the day before Thanksgiving 1992. I was less a young man than a traumatized child in an adult’s body who had no business being a partner or a parent. Over the years, I paid virtually no child support. I almost always ignored my daughter’s birthdays and Christmases. I saw her for cumulatively less than 72 hours between the time she was a toddler until after her high school graduation.
I made sporadic efforts to reach out to Bekah in Texas from wherever I was living at the time—Missouri, Colorado, Vermont. A few pained, awkward phone calls and two-line emails would ensue. But the connection was always brittle, so susceptible to fracture again and again.
My repeated falls into clinical-grade depression and struggles with addiction certainly influenced my capacity during these years to build a relationship with a little girl who became a wary teenager who became a young woman. Fundamentally though, I would break off contact for months at a time because it was easier.
Easier for me, I mean. It was easier to repeat a pattern created by my birth father, who’d abandoned my mother and me when I was less than three years old. It was easier to repeat another pattern—this one created by my mother and stepfather—who turned away, literally, from my needs when they seemed too demanding and too difficult to meet. It was easier to inflict on Bekah the same broken-souled selfishness I’d experienced growing up.
I’m unaccountably fortunate that for so long my daughter’s heart was more stalwart than mine. Despite my selfishness and culpable ignorance, she never gave up. I always responded, because of the tainted, confused love I felt for her, but she kept offering chances I wouldn’t take hold of securely.
A few years ago—even after I’d ignored her invitation to attend her high school graduation—Bekah offered to fly up from Texas to visit me in Rhode Island, where I now lived. The first time she brought her boyfriend but on subsequent trips she came alone. A day spent exploring the Boston Freedom Trail revealed we share a deep interest in history. We found mutual pleasure in our verbal acuity. Both our left ears stick out a little more than our right ones.
As time passed, not always easily, we both matured in a strange parallel until the winter of 2012, when Bekah decided she was ready to give college another try after a disastrous half-semester a few years earlier. And she wanted to move in with my girlfriend and me so she could attend the university where I teach.
I leapt at this, yet another opportunity she’d given me. She could get a cost-free education, and we’d have a chance to live together. So in August of 2013, at an age when most children have launched into their independent lives, Bekah moved in. She and I were together under the same roof for the first time since she wore diapers.
Since then we’ve grown closer than I ever thought possible. We’ve told one another a lot of what happened to us each during the lost years. We’ve delighted in our shared love of seared scallops and vapid TV shows about ghost-hunting. We’ve argued about the important and the meaningless. We now have a shared language and inside jokes and a growing store of memories.
This summer my girlfriend moved away to take a job, and now my daughter and I are caught up more tightly in the paradox expressed by Faulkner’s dictum. Since it’s been just us in the house, I’ve come to see that my daughter is not only a confident, independent young woman. She’s progressively, if unconsciously, revealed herself to still be the teenager who tries to shock her father by turning up the volume on a filthy rap song, who’s then horrified when he sings along. She’s the 10-year-old who wants her daddy close by when her tummy hurts. There are moments when the look in her eyes is the same as in one of the few childhood pictures I possess.
Maybe none of that is news to parents who have raised their children all along. It’s been a profound discovery for me. As I’m coming to know who she is now, I’m learning how she remains who she was, when I was absent and far away. That time can never be recovered, but Bekah and I have moments in which we experience together in the present, fleetingly, what should have happened in the past.
At the same time, the more trust that threads us together, the more her anger and sorrow for what I deprived her of most of her life have come to the surface of our new life. The past isn’t dead.
So a few days ago, what should have been an easy conversation in the kitchen about a simple matter became without warning a shouted fight. Neither of us could say what we felt or even understood what we were feeling. And we ended up each alone, separated by one floor and years of pain.
And yet the present is not only the past. Over the course of these 15 heart-filling and heart-breaking months, I’ve learned I must stay focused on trying to love my daughter unselfishly. That night, after she’d left the house for a drive to calm down, I emailed her to say we could talk whenever she was ready and that I was sorry I had gotten out of control.
It was just an email, but it was important that I speak first. She wrote back later that night to say she was still too upset to talk about what had happened.
Two tense and quiet days passed. Uncertainty gnawed at me—I wanted to talk, to pull her into my arms, to cry, but I did none of those things. I just tried to exhibit a quiet calm I did not feel.
Finally, Bekah asked to talk. Her big green eyes rimmed with tears as she confessed that she’s afraid to let out all that sadness and anger. She’s afraid that if she voices it, I’ll do once more what I’ve done so many times before: abandon her.
Love, I am learning, remains as imperfect as the hearts in which it resides. I will again fail as a father. But after listening to Bekah say she’s afraid of what will happen if she fully opens her heart to me, I’ll never again turn away from my daughter. Not even by storming out of a room when overwhelmed.
I’ve told her so, and she doesn’t believe me. I understand that. Despite how far we’ve come, she’s entitled to her doubt.
It also doesn’t matter what she can or can’t believe. I will always grieve the innumerable chances I lost over the years to take my child’s hand. But now, no matter what she says about our past, no matter how she says it, I’ll stay right there with her. In the same room, in the same tumult of time, in the same emotional storm. Instead of turning away, I’ll hold her gaze. Instead of letting go, my grip will tighten.
Originally published on PurpleClover.com
Photo: [main] emsiproduction / flickr [inset] courtesy of author